An enticing Caribbean breeze blows through Ooltewah with the opening of Ceniza, Daniel and Brittany Alcala’s second restaurant to open in the Chattanooga area in just over one year. Their first restaurant, Embargo 62 on the North Shore is purely Cuban. Ceniza, though, dances to a different beat, enveloping the flavors of not just Cuba, but the entire Caribbean region.
“I believe Chattanooga has been ready for an addition to their food options,” Brittany Alcala says. Embargo has exceeded our expectations, and now, Ceniza adds variety.”
The Ooltewah neighborhood has welcomed the 80-seat restaurant into its Cambridge Square development. It joins Heaven and Ale, Wine Down, Southern Burger and others, turning Ooltewah into another dining destination for Hamilton County.
Ceniza’s Colonial white facade with tall columns, expansive windows and turquoise trim stand out from other culinary establishments in Cambridge Square. Inside, whitewashed walls are distressed and sport decorative wall quotes, such as Hechos en el Caribe (translation: made in the Caribbean) and Los Mejores (the best). The high ceiling with exposed metal beams and the tall, arched windows, all painted in the same turquoise as the exterior trim, make you feel as though you’ve entered an eatery in Miami or any island farther south.
Laminate wood tables with red chairs, roughly painted, and banquette seating along one wall give a well-worn, comfortable look to the dining area.
“We are so happy with how it turned out and are blessed to have an amazing design team bring our vision to life,” Alcala says.
For years, Chattanoogans have enjoyed the foods of Mexico, Guatemala and other Central American countries. Caribbean cuisine embraces not only Central America, but also the islands and the foods of South America. Put all these cuisines in one big pot and you might find plantains and rice from African slaves and pork in many different forms from Spanish colonists. Add the surrounding oceans brimming with seafood and farms overgrown with sweet mangoes and coconuts, and you have the ingredients for astoundingly good food. This is the menu’s draw, and it makes Brazilian-trained chef Douglas Silva the perfect addition to Ceniza’s kitchen.
“I was born to create food,” the Brazilian native says. “Caribbean cuisine offers so many different flavors to play with.” And when paired with American, it becomes yet another fusion cuisine, i.e. Ceniza’s hand-cut rib-eye, marinated in made-from-scratch chimichuri sauce, grilled and served with fried potatoes, roasted broccoli and crispy Brussels sprouts.
From coconut shrimp and Cajun shrimp pasta, to the Three-Napkin Burger with a name that needs no further description, Ceniza’s menu has a spattering of American favorites. It also has a couple of crossovers from Embargo’s menu that were simply too popular to deny: Lechon and Congri (mojo pork with rice and black beans); the Cuban sandwich; and braised oxtail.
The restaurant features two large bars, one in the main dining room and a second in a separate cigar lounge with a dedicated, 90-seat smoking/bar area, it’s perfect. The cigar lounge is enclosed and features a separate entrance, keeping smoke and its accompanying smells out of the restaurant. Cigars are a major export of the Caribbean, so it’s only fitting that Ceniza should feature a large humidor, currently featuring more than 200 cigars with more on the way.
The fully stocked bars are an important element at Ceniza, and the Alcala’s have employed some of the top people in their field to oversee the spirits. Danny Valdez, one of Tennessee’s top mixologists, and Dunia Raffa, who was crowned Queen of the Daiquiri in her home country of Cuba in 2014, create and oversee the making of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, such as a Praline Old-Fashioned.
When asked if she was the first woman ever to win her country’s sought-after title, Raffa, with her engaging smile, simply answers “Yes,” as she garnished one of her frozen concoctions.
Having Raffa on the Ceniza team is quite the coup, Alcala says. “We are so blessed to have Cuba’s first and only Queen of the Daiquiri working for us. Her bar craftsmanship is second to none in the craft cocktail industry. The opportunity to have one of Cuba’s finest cañtineros join us in Chattanooga is a dream come true.”
Review and photography by Anne Braly